What Do You Do: Work Is the New Sex

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What Do You Do: Work Is the New Sex

“Why do we work so hard?” The question is asked by a man standing before a pool and manicured lawn. “Other countries, they work, they stroll home, they stop by the cafe, they take August off. Off. Why aren’t you like that? Why aren’t we like that? Because we’re crazy, driven, hard-working believers.”

The recent Cadillac commercial that featured this message has been heavily criticized for endorsing materialism and workaholism, but what critics often ignore is the ad’s accuracy.

According to the International Labor Organization, Americans work more, take less vacation, and retire later than people in any other industrialized country. In the United States, 86 percent of men and 67 percent of women work more than 40 hours per week.

By any measure, work is an enormous, even overbearing part of our lives. Our culture is more work-centered than any other on the planet and, very possibly, more work-centered than any other in history. Given this reality, those of us tasked with making disciples of Jesus Christ cannot ignore work as a critical area of spiritual formation, but two-thirds of churched adults surveyed by Barna said they have not heard any teachings about work at their church.

Do We Really Need to Talk About That?

At a recent Leadership Journal event to address this topic, a few pastors challenged me. “Does the church really need to be talking more about work in a culture that’s already obsessed with it?” one asked. That’s a fair question, but let’s apply the same logic to another cultural obsession—sex. For generations many churches avoided talking about sex apart from periodically condemning the culture’s warped sexual values. Others limited conversations to the recently hormonal teens in their youth ministry, and the message was often one-dimensional: “Wait!”

Is it any wonder why few in our society affirm a Christian vision of sexuality or why even a majority of young adults who attend church regularly disagree with orthodox Christian sexual ethics? The level of sexual brokenness and confusion experienced by Christians, never mind those outside the church, has left ministries scrambling to reengage the conversation about sexual health. We are playing catch-up on a subject of urgent importance and doing so with a deficit of credibility. By not talking about sex thoughtfully and regularly, the church largely abandoned the conversation to the culture with disastrous results.

We now face a similar outcome as church leaders express reluctance to talk about work.

Some pastors, as I’ve already mentioned, believe the last thing Americans need is for the church to affirm an inherited cultural idol like work. Other ministers have admitted to me that a career within the church has left them feeling unqualified to discuss the challenges of working in the world. Still others have been shaped by theology—particularly about the End Times—that makes affirmation of any non-ministry work virtually impossible. Why waste time on a subject that carries no eternal value?

These objections to discussing work, however, sound eerily like the objections given thirty years ago regarding sex. Dorothy Sayers saw the danger of ignoring the topic decades ago:

In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as in Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends.

Presenting a Redeemed Vision

I absolutely agree that work is an idol in our culture, but ignoring it is not the solution. Neither is a one-dimensional response of condemnation. Both proved to be foolish responses to the sex idol and only strengthened its allure in both the culture and the church.

I’m pleased that most pastors have now abandoned this ignore-or-condemn approach to sex for a more mature, biblical discussion. More ministers now recognize that sex is an inescapable part of our humanity and spirituality that was created and affirmed by God, but is now twisted by sin and in need of redemption like every other part of our world.

Similarly, ignoring work or condemning our culture’s idolatry of it is not enough. Instead the church has the challenging task of affirming the original goodness of work as a God-ordained part of our humanity without falling into the culture’s trap of making work into an idol. We must present a redeemed vision of work for a culture full of “crazy, driven, hard-working believers.”

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What Do You Do?

If you sit with someone long enough, included in the initial small talk (“Where do you live?” “How do you know so-and-so?”) someone in the conversation will inevitably ask, “What do you do?” What are we looking for when we ask that question? And what do we hear when we’re on the receiving end of that question?

What we do is important stuff in this world, and God desires greatly to be invited into what it is we find ourselves doing every day. God takes delight in the work of our hands. But do we sometimes confuse what we and others “do” with who we are and, especially, who we are in Christ? Would our question change if we thought about it more deeply? And what about our answer? How about you? What Do You Do?